Agents of Change profiles the people who have not only shaped the Middle East over the past 60 years, but whose legacies will continue to determine the destiny of future generations.

1950s: Gamal Abdul Nasser

A postal worker’s son born near Alexandria in 1918, Nasser was a teenage school pupil when he attended his first anti-British demonstration. He went to the Cairo Royal Military Academy and was commissioned into an Egyptian infantry regiment in Upper Egypt in 1938.

Lightly wounded fighting in Gaza in 1948 during the first Arab-Israel war, Nasser subsequently became chairman of the Association of Free Officers, which seized power in July 1952 and abolished the monarchy the next year. Nasser became prime minister in February 1954 and president in July 1957. He announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal during a speech on 26 July 1956. This provoked an Anglo-French invasion in October that was co-ordinated with an Israeli attack into the Sinai peninsula.

The Suez crisis made Nasser an Arab hero. His reputation was consolidated by the construction of the Aswan Dam. In 1958, he announced the unification of Egypt and Syria, but the United Arab Republic only lasted until 1961. Nasser backed republican officers who seized power in what was North Yemen in September 1962.

Defeat in the third Arab war with Israel in June 1967 was a devastating setback. Nasser died of a heart attack following an Arab League summit in Cairo in September 1970. Nasser is remembered as an outstanding Arab nationalist who influenced a generation of leaders.

1960s: Yasser Arafat

The son of a Palestinian and born in Cairo in 1929, Arafat was co-founder of Fatah, now the governing party in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in the West Bank. Fatah became the most influential group within the Palestine Liberation Organisation after the 1967 Arab-Israel war. Arafat was elected its chairman in 1969. He was expelled from Jordan in 1970 and from Lebanon to Tunisia following Israel’s invasion in 1982. His support for Saddam Hussein in 1990 outraged Gulf states and led to the expulsion of more than 1 million Palestinians from Kuwait after the Iraqis were expelled.

Arafat signed the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel for which he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. He returned to Gaza in the summer of 1994 and was PNA president from then until his death in 2004. Arafat secured self-government for the Palestinian people for the first time, but failed to secure his dream of a Palestinian state.

1970s: King Faisal Ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud (pictured above)

Born in Riyadh in 1906, Faisal Ibn Abdulaziz was the third son of the future King Abdulaziz. In 1919, he was the first Al-Saud to visit London and Paris. Faisal commanded Al-Saud’s armies in wars for the Hejaz and southwest Arabia, and was foreign minister from 1930 until his death. He was made crown prince and prime minister when his brother Prince Saud became king in 1953.

Faisal fell out with King Saud and resigned as prime minister in 1960. He returned as premier in 1962 and replaced King Saud in 1964. King Faisal was a moderniser who diligently adhered to Islamic teaching. Saudi Arabia was an ally of Egypt and Syria in the fourth Arab-Israel war in 1973, imposed an oil embargo on countries supplying weapons to Israel and pressed for the oil price increases of 1973-74 that transformed the economic outlook for oil-producing nations.

King Faisal approved some of Saudi Arabia’s largest projects, including Jubail and Yanbu industrial cities, and founded the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. He was assassinated in his home in March 1975 by a disgruntled nephew.

1980s: Saddam Hussain

US troops symbolically topple a giant statue of Iraq’s deposed president Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003

US troops symbolically topple a giant statue of Iraq’s deposed president Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003

US troops symbolically topple a giant statue of Iraq’s deposed president Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003

When Saddam Hussain al-Takrit became Iraq’s fifth president in July 1979, it seemed certain he would make a mark. This he did as head of state for almost 24 years, during which time his country was reduced to a divided, poor and war-wracked shambles.

Born near Takrit in the Tigris valley in 1937, Saddam dropped out of law school to become an Arab Baath Socialist Party activist. He led a failed attempt to assassinate Iraq’s first president Abdelkarim Qasim in October 1959 and spent five years in exile in Syria and Egypt, returning following the 1963 Iraq Ramadan coup. He was imprisoned by the new anti-Baathist regime, but escaped after three years. Saddam played a role in the 1968 coup in which the Baath Party gained supreme power.

A modernising strongman in the new regime, Saddam forced out his predecessor and eliminated rivals. Fearing the Iranian revolution’s appeal to Iraq’s Shiite population, Saddam ordered the invasion of the Islamic Republic in September 1980, starting an eight-year war in which chemical weapons were used against Iranian forces and internal rebels. The invasion of Kuwait two years later was a desperate act by an inveterate high-stakes gambler. Defeated, Iraq was subject to international sanctions until its invasion and occupation by a US-led coalition in April 2003. Saddam went into hiding, but was found, tried and hanged on 30 December 2006.

1980s: Ayatollah Khomeini

Still a divisive figure almost 28 years after he died, Khomeini is seen either as a bigot who prevented Iran from becoming a liberal democracy or one of the most important figures in Islamic history.

The Iranian Islamic Republic Army carrying posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini

The Iranian Islamic Republic Army carrying posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini

The Iranian Islamic Republic Army carrying posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini

Born in Khomeyn in west central Iran in 1902, he started religious training aged six and entered the Arak seminary in 1920. Teaching and studying mainly at Qom for the next 40 years, he was known for his scholarship, openness to ideas including Greek philosophy, and refusal to get involved in politics. In 1963, to the surprise of many, Khomeini condemned the Shah’s modernisation plans. He was arrested and detained in Tehran, but continued to denounce the Shah and the US. Khomeini was expelled and went to Najaf in 1964. In exile, he became the Shah’s most influential enemy and developed the theory for an Islamic state, which was eventually established in Iran after the 1979 revolution. By then Khomeini had been encouraged to leave Iraq and was living in Paris.

He returned to Iran in February 1979 and became Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the end of the year. From then until his death in June 1988, Khomeini shaped Iranian government policy, crushing internal opponents, rallying Iran against the Iraqi invasion of September 1980, seeking to spread Iran’s Islamic revolution and denouncing the west, the US in particular. His last major decision was accepting the end of the war with Iraq on UN terms in July 1988. Khomeini described it as “worse than drinking poison”. He died less than 12 months later, but Iran continues to be largely ruled by politicians and clerics he inspired.

1990s-present: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum

Sheikh Mohammed

Sheikh Mohammed

Sheikh Mohammed

Born in 1949, nine years before oil was found in what became the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed witnessed Dubai change from one of the Middle East’s poorest places into one of the richest. He passed out of Britain’s Mons officer cadet school with the sword of honour as a top student. Returning to Dubai, he was made head of the emirate’s defence and police forces. Sheikh Mohammed was appointed UAE defence minister in 1971.

As head of Dubai Civil Aviation, he launched Emirates Airline in 1985. Sheikh Mohammed has been involved with every major Dubai initiative since then, becoming Dubai crown prince in January 1995, and ruler as well as UAE vice-president and prime minister after his late brother Sheikh Maktoum’s death in early 2006.